Missoula’s Housing Market Is Killing Homeless People

by William Skink

In this week’s Indy the PR rhetoric Missoula’s political leadership uses to discuss progress in housing the homeless meets reality. For me, the reality begins with the picture the Indy uses for the article because I know two of the three homeless men in the picture are dead. One of them, Tim, died of exposure before he could get housed. Tim’s death was 100% preventable. If he had been a better applicant for housing, maybe Missoula’s housing market wouldn’t have consigned Tim to die on the streets, but that’s what happened.

Waiting lists for subsidized housing aren’t measured in months, but years. After waiting that long for a housing voucher, imagine coming up on the list and thinking you finally, FINALLY, have a shot at getting into an apartment, only to find out that, no, landlords and property management companies still won’t give you the time of day. It would be like winning the lottery, then finding out no business will accept your money.

Earlier this spring there was an attempt to get 40 people/families with vouchers into housing. These folks had the vouchers in hand, which is a guarantee of rent, but no one willing to rent to them. I had wondered how that effort worked out. Thanks to this Indy article I now know it was a failure:

A spring campaign by the Missoula Housing Authority, which administers the Shelter Plus Care voucher program, and other partners fell far short of a goal to house 40 voucher recipients in 40 days, MHA recently announced. Only 12 were able to secure leases during the campaign period, contributing to a total of 29 households that secured leases during the year ending in April.

As a result, the Housing Authority was unable to spend about $22,000 of an $850,000 annual grant, with the remainder reverting to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, MHA admissions and occupancy manager Jim McGrath says.

Individuals and families approved for the program are among the most vulnerable of the hundreds of homeless people who reside in Missoula. A year ago, members of the coalition behind the city’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness introduced a new referral system, called coordinated entry, that puts clients on one citywide list and prioritizes services by need. One homeless man who got a voucher through the new system died of hypothermia last winter before he could find an apartment, the Indy reported at the time.

Missoula likes to consider itself a caring community willing to hit the streets in support of refugees and asylum seekers being separated from their children, yet despite that caring spirit there are people literally dying in the streets of Missoula because landlords and property managers won’t take a housing voucher as payment for rent.

If Missoula’s community of righteous do-gooders can’t get 40 people into housing—that’s 40 people who waited for years to get a voucher and now have the financial means of sustaining their housing—then how realistic is it to think some new “coordinated entry” system is going to have any discernable impact on the hundreds and hundreds of people waiting to get help with housing?

From what I have heard, there are now over 800 people on the new coordinated entry list hoping to get help with housing. As they wait, instead of addressing the affordable housing crisis, Mayor Engen and a majority of City Council continue doing things that will make housing even more unaffordable, like supporting another bond for more open space.

So, what is Missoula going to do about this? I know, how about doing another survey that recommends things like creating a local option sales tax and/or organizational restructuring to create the optics that something is being done:

Missoula County needs to tackle its relatively high crime rates, high cost of living and a dearth of office space and industrial property if it wants to significantly boost its attractiveness to new and growing businesses, according to a recent report commissioned by the Missoula Economic Partnership.

This past spring, the MEP and other partners hired a private consulting company called Garner Economics to develop a Competitive Realities Report and Targeted Industry Strategy for Missoula in order to identify ways to strengthen the organization’s economic development service delivery efforts.

The report made several recommendations, including implementing a local option sales tax, reducing duplicative efforts by consolidating economic development agencies and business assistance organizations, changing the target industry strategy to focus more in the experiential economy, and striving to increase workforce development.

How exactly is a sales tax supposed to address the cost of living other than to increase it? And will the City really look at “consolidating” economic development agencies, or growing them? Later in the article we get this:

One of Garner’s key recommendations is that tourism development efforts and various other economic development organizations need to cooperate, coordinate and communicate more.

To achieve that goal, the study’s authors encouraged consolidating and reorganizing the MEP as a holding company, led by a president/CEO. That person would have authority over the Convention and Visitors Bureau as well as the Tourism Business Improvement District.

Also, a newly created City of Missoula Director of Redevelopment, Housing and Community Development would have authority over the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and that agency’s current underling, the Office of Housing and Community Development.

The Office of Housing and Community Development has not yet produced the city’s official housing policy since Engen created it in 2015. Earlier this year, after a housing report came out, Missoula City Council was told that there will be 3 phases, and that phase 1 is still being worked on. Here are the phases:

Phase I: Come up with guiding principles and macro-level recommendations for housing affordability.

Phase II: Get specific technical recommendations and implement an administration and monitoring plan.

Phase III: Vet recommendations and send policy to city council to be adopted.

Maybe it’s time for a little honesty: Missoula is not an inclusive place for people of limited financial means. PR speak from the Mayor’s Office won’t change that. Studies and surveys won’t change that. Hiring well-meaning people won’t change that. Why? Because Missoula refuses to change, and our political leadership has not been held accountable for its financial mismanagement.

No one was held accountable for the cost over-runs with the art park, those costs were just put onto the taxpayer. And no one was held accountable for apparently forgetting to include the cost of maintenance in the 39 million dollar parks bond. And then there’s MRA, throwing around our public money like candy to any developer who wants it. MRA helped the Lambros clan improve their Southgate Mall property so they could flip it for 58 million bucks. MRA even helped out that little coffee company, Starbucks, back in 2014 because I’m sure it would have been difficult for Starbucks to come up with $66,000 dollars.

What will eventually change the cost of housing in Missoula to make it more affordable is not something anyone wants, but it’s something I believe is inevitable: another financial crisis. This will happen because we never actually dealt with the economic wreckage wrought by the bursting of the housing bubble 10 years ago. Instead, the Federal Reserve turned on the interest-free liquidity spigots to help banks and corporations avoid the consequence of their Ponzi-scheme business models.

And the result? Richer rich people, poorer poor people and more financial bubbles.

This is the economic back-drop to housing trends that are not sustainable, in places like Missoula and other west coast economic exclusion zones Missoula appears dead-set on emulating.

And so it goes.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Missoula’s Housing Market Is Killing Homeless People

  1. Good article. The five people I talked to in the Reserve Street homeless camp a few weeks ago all complained about the high cost of living. One woman said she was about to get a place, but I wonder if she’s just going to be stuck on this waiting list.

    You’re right on the financial crash as well. They’re cyclical, so there’s always another over the horizon. That’s about the only way most working Missoulians will ever get into a house. Prices will only go up until then, and the new open space bond idea only exacerbates the problem.

    Missoulians had a chance to change the political direction of the city last fall with the mayoral election, but they chose not to. Engen got back in with 59% to Triepke’s 41%, though just over 21,000 people voted in a city that has around 75,000 people now. That’s a turnout of 43%.

    So most people are happy with the city’s course, though we do see more beginning to question that course. We see this in the city council. We got Ramos in there, so he’s the sole conservative voice now, or the only one that’s willing to question most things.

    But there is light. I’ve noticed over the past few months that Stacie Anderson, Julie Armstrong, and Michelle Cares are all beginning to raise concerns on certain votes. Sometimes John DiBari also questions.

    If Ramos could pull those folks together, that’d be 5 votes against the overzealous policies of the mayor and the rest of his cronies on the council. It’s not enough to change anything – and I highly doubt that all 5 of them would pull together – but it’s a slight start.

    Another city council election will take place in the fall of 2019. Unless we get more questioning voices elected, nothing’s going to change for the better. I don’t see Missoula becoming any more affordable in the next couple years.

Leave a Reply